During my recent trip to Japan, it became abundantly clear that my preconception of contemporary Japanese music was completely and utterly wrong. Sure they’ve got their fair share of airheaded J-pop, but they also have strongly entrenched hardcore/indie and improvisational/experimental jazz scenes. 24-year-old piano prodigy Hiromi Uehara happened to be playing a show in Tokyo while I was visiting. I couldn’t attend thanks to outrageous ticket prices and prohibitive travel distances, but after spending time with her latest album, Brain, I wish I had attended.
Hiromi seems to be blessed with a limitless energy and heedless abandon, both in songwriting eclecticism and performance power. The album opens with “Kung Fu Champion,” which plays out like a ’70s blaxploitation chase scene. Its midpoint, a heightened flurry of punchy keyboard notes, is mind-blowing. The follow up, “If…,” follows a more standard, straightforward jazz piano pattern. It’s much smoother, but not to the point where it becomes antiseptic or vacuous. Hiromi yields the floor on this track to guest bassist Anthony Jackson, who provides a stirring, complex string run during his solo.
Both “Wind Song” and “Green Tea Farm” recall the quiet melancholia of Vince Guaraldi. The former’s waltz-like melody flits along like leaves on an autumn breeze, while the latter is a spacious pastoral ode that reflects on Hiromi’s childhood in Japan. Modern rock influences manifest themselves on the title track, a song that begins with an etch-a-sketch angular intro and expands slowly into a downbeat ballad with a tortuous Radiohead-esque arrangement.
Hiromi’s seamless blend of styles and musical phrasing makes her a difficult artist to pin to a specific genre. This can only work to her advantage, as Brain‘s accessibility will likely appeal to fans of jazz, funk, rock and experimentation. If only I’d known this when I was in Japan.